Arts review: Degree Show 2013, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee

Calum Crotch's psychedelic chill-out space
Calum Crotch's psychedelic chill-out space
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With its Twitter references and electronic music, Dundee’s degree show is the work of a generation at ease with the digital world, but also reacting against it. These young artists knit, sew and make models too

Degree Show 2013

Mary Beth Quigley's Panda family

Mary Beth Quigley's Panda family

Duncan of Jordanstone College 
of Art & Design, Dundee

Star rating: * * * *

SO, spring has come at last. The leaves are on the trees, the birds are singing and Degree Show season is upon us. Duncan of Jordanstone is traditionally the first of Scotland’s art schools to open its doors, making Dundee students the first to go through the whole nail-biting business of presenting a show which culminates four years of study and waiting a week and a half while the world passes judgement on it.

It is almost impossible to generalise about a degree show. Duncan of Jordanstone has 290 students graduating this year (hence the umbrella title for the show, 290 Degrees) in a range of diverse disciplines from Fine Art to Digital Interaction Design. It’s a melting pot of talents and hopes, being unleashed on a world when economic conditions are far from ideal for the creative practitioner.

Sometimes, however, it’s possible to identify a tone, and the prevailing mood here, at least in Fine Art, Time-based Art and Art, Philosophy, Contemporary Practice (APCP) is thoughtful and questioning. Rather than going for all-singing, all-dancing visual splendour, there is a quiet interrogation going on about what it means to be an artist, painter, sculptor, film-maker, and what it means to make things in a digital age. If there is a theme to which this show returns again and again, it is about making things.

Duncan of Jordanstone can usually be relied upon to produce a few exceptional painters, but this is less in evidence this year. Allan Davies is an interesting figurative painter, but his work doesn’t shout about its accomplishments. Morag Cullens has a strong painterly touch, but her close-up fragmented faces concentrate on interrogating the medium. What happens in a portrait, she seems to ask, when the act of painting is foregrounded, becoming at least as important as the subject of the picture? Natasha Dijhkoff’s show is a dynamic interrogation of painting – the colours seems to continue to swirl in her abstract works, and indeed in her film work they are still swirling.

If you pass by at the right time, you might find yourself halted in a corridor to listen to Liam Dunn’s F***ist Manifesto, a cheerful postmodern rejoinder to the criticisms levelled at contemporary art. In his own space, his work is more philosophical: if, as logic dictates, every act of making by an artist also unmakes other possibilities, what, then, is art? Or perhaps, why is art?

Comparatively few young artists now stop to comment on digital interaction, perhaps because it is such a commonplace part of life, but it is interesting to see Ross Bloomer creating a live performance by painting wisdom from Twitter (“Dance like no one’s going to put it on YouTube”) graffiti-like on the walls in real time, each comment overlaying those laid down before it. Daniel Bruton’s work seems to have sprung from abandoning the virtual world in search of some real experiences, which took him on a boy’s own adventure in a supermarket trolley.

Jonny Lyons uses photography to document his adventures with home-made devices, as well as displaying the devices themselves, meticulously fashioned in hand-made wooden cases. Dorian Braun and Jack Paton are collaborators in making and doing, whether that is distilling moonshine from cherries gathered in Dundee, using their own urine to make a battery, or slicing up a tree-trunk using a five-metre-long saw. Brothers Calum and Fraser Brownlee explore teenage gang culture with a quirky brutality which makes them begin to look like Dundee’s answer to the Chapman brothers.

Ewan McClure is another artist who combines making crafted objects and machines with elements of performance, and is interested (among other things) in bee-keeping. Jonathan Douglas (Time-based Art) makes machines which use more technology, but there is still an element of homespun quirkiness. John Kelly’s meticulous sculptures of houses on stilts are built with the skill and patience of the model maker.

Dan Shay (APCP) is interested in what happens if the realm of the virtual is given a physical manifestation. He has set himself a tough challenge with this, but he rises to it in a thoughtful and effective show which combines old and new technologies, with a nod to Malevich and the early abstractionists. His use of film, light and mirrors to show his viewers their own “digital shadow”, combines a rigour of ideas with immediate visual effectiveness. Bryndis Blackadder makes woodcuts and sculptures of animals, but at the heart of it is a question about the implications of learning through the virtual. If museum collections become increasingly digital, do we not become increasingly distant from the things we are learning about?

Craft processes are very much in evidence throughout the show, from woodwork to sewing and knitting. Cathy O’Brien’s patchwork head of the minotaur and labyrinth of lacey stalactites reworks elements of the myth with a feminine spin, while Mary Beth Quigley’s fabric animals are a joy, from the daschund to the giraffe. Her kitsch recreation of a living room as the setting to watch her panda family film is rich in imagination and detail.

Lucy Monaghan (APCP) has made an arresting sculpture of wool, knitted and woven, which commands attention by its sheer visual presence, though it also has an electronic soundtrack (in common with several bodies of work this year). She is keen to challenge the division between art and crafts, to reclaim craft from the domestic sphere, and her bold three-dimensional work is certainly like nothing your granny ever made.

Mhairi Edwards uses fragile materials such as gauze and paper to create ethereal, evocative sculptures. She has a sculptor’s sensibility in her awareness of space, strength, tension, and the ways in which materials become vehicles for emotion. A similar sensibility is evident in Sam Baxter’s works, where delicate, ordered sculptures made with protea flowers contrast with a messy, more robust installation using straw and mud.

Gemma Mathieson (APCP) makes an investigation into landscape, using the materials collected on her visits to a certain location to create hand-made papers and rubbings. Her text works are reminiscent of Hamish Fulton in their matter-of-fact evocativeness. Jayne Topping does something more personal in her use of maps to convey the nature of memories.

Ross Weryk’s installation uses film, sculpture and an edgy electronic soundtrack to explore a patient’s sense of powerlessness in hospital, capturing the sense in which becoming subject to tests and procedures strips one of personhood. It is not a place you’d want to linger, whereas Camilla Richardson’s play space for children and adults is much more inviting, as is Calum Crotch’s (Time-based Art) psychedelic chill-out space. He already has start-up funding to start producing these for clubs and festivals.

And there are plenty of artists going out and grabbing the issues by the jugular. Ana Hine (APCP) investigates gender and the boundaries of what is considered obscene in a series of confrontational photographs and films. There is something of Cindy Sherman’s chameleon nature in the way she is photographed both as girl and boy. Shazia Ahmed (APCP) makes contemporary flags based on supermarket logos and plastic bags, and a doormat made of cut up banknotes. Interestingly, she was not given permission to fly her flags in one of Dundee’s central shopping streets.

The show has been thoughtfully organised, often creating dialogues between the artists who share an exhibition space. David Main’s strong abstract sculptures seem perfectly teamed with Vivienne Russell’s paintings. Others, however, would look out of place wherever they were hung. Brendan Collins’ large-scale paintings of his friends in costume acting out scenes from the Decameron, look like they’ve come along about 150 years too late, but they are so well done it shouldn’t make any difference.

And a final word goes to Pawel Grzyb (Time-based Art) whose degree show is a film made when he returned to his native Poland to tell the story of the grandfather, who was in Auschwitz and narrowly missed being operated on by Mengele. It’s a moving account of how difficult it is to uncover the past, particularly when some people would rather it remained buried, and of what happens when the answers you find turn out to be a bit different from the ones you are looking for.

• Until 26 May.